Come watch No. 3️⃣ swing it in person on Tuesday. We host Longwood at 3 p.m.
— Virginia Baseball (@UVABaseball) February 20, 2023
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The University of Virginia baseball team scored runs at a prodigious pace last season, averaging 8.6 per game, and many of its top hitters are back this year, including Jake Gelof, Griff O’Ferrall, Casey Saucke and Kyle Teel.
It was not shocking, then, that the No. 19 Cavaliers totaled 49 hits and 39 runs in their first three games this season, defeating Navy 24-5 (in seven innings) on Friday, Ohio 8-4 on Saturday, and UNC Wilmington 7-0 on Sunday.
“From an offensive standpoint, we just returned so much experience,” UVA head coach Brian O’Connor said Monday at Disharoon Park.
More noteworthy to O’Connor was his team’s excellence in other areas. “I thought our pitching and defense was spectacular this weekend,” he said.
The pitchers who collected victories over the weekend were all elsewhere last year. Brian Edgington, who started against Navy, is a graduate transfer from Elon. Nick Parker, who started on Saturday, is a grad transfer from Coastal Carolina, and Jack O’Connor, who started against UNCW, was a senior at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington last spring.
From a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament last season, UVA lost most of its proven pitchers. And so the biggest question mark about O’Connor’s 20th team at Virginia is its pitching staff.
More answers will come when ACC play begins next month, but the early signs are promising for the Hoos.
“I thought our starting pitchers all went out and did a terrific job,” O’Connor said. “We did a nice job out of the bullpen, and to play three games and to only have one error is impressive, and that’s what shows up every day, that pitching and defense. That’s what has to be consistent day in and day out to be a championship club.”
Jack O’Connor (no relation) is a 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-hander. Against UNCW, he combined with Jake Berry and Jay Woolfolk on a two-hit shutout. O’Connor, in his UVA debut, allowed only one hit in five innings.
“He earned the opportunity he had [Sunday] in the start,” Brian O’Connor said, “and it didn’t surprise me that he went out and pitched really well against the host team down there in Wilmington … He was really good in the fall. He’s been exceptional in the preseason. I say this a lot about him, his preparation and his intensity to prepare to be ready for his opportunities is really, really elite. And I think that mentality separates him from a lot of people, and he’ll continue to do really good things. There’s gonna be learning curves, there’s gonna be times that he’s going to need to adjust to what people are doing to him, but he’s got talent and his approach is very, very good.”
Virginia starts a 10-game homestand Tuesday by taking on Longwood (0-3) at 3 p.m. This was supposed to be Hoos’ home opener, but the Navy game was moved to Disharoon Park because of bad weather in Wilmington, N.C., on Friday. The Cavaliers bused to Wilmington later that day and played as scheduled on Saturday and Sunday in the Hughes Bros. Challenge.
The Hoos returned home with a .415 team batting average. Of the players who have started every game for UVA, six are hitting .385 or better: Teel (.571), O’Ferrall (.500), Gelof (.429), Ethan O’Donnell (.429), Ethan Anderson (.417) and Saucke (.385).
Henry Godbout and Justin Rubin, who have been splitting time at second base, are hitting .500 and .400, respectively.
Teel, Gelof and O’Donnell are juniors. O’Ferrall, Anderson, Saucke and Rubin are sophomores, and Godbout is a freshman. O’Donnell is a transfer from Northwestern, where he made the All-Big Ten second team in 2022.
“I love where we’re at offensively,” O’Connor said. “I think it’s a very deep lineup …. We can score runs in different ways from different spots in the lineup. Even the back part of our lineup, I think, is tremendously talented.”
O’Ferrell and O’Donnell effectively give the Hoos two leadoff hitters, O’Connor said. “They’re both pretty dynamic players that can run. O’Donnell’s got a chance to hit some balls out of the ballpark, and they can hit doubles. If one of them gets on, it gives you a chance for a stolen base, and then certainly you’ve got your middle of the lineup coming up as well. So that’s a real plus. I think they’re both really special offensive players that can do a multitude of things. And then we’re hitting Justin Rubin in the nine-hole when he plays, and he could be a high-quality leadoff hitter at a lot of places. And so I love that too, because he’s got a chance to really turn the lineup over to get it back to those guys [at the top].”
Junior left-hander Connelly Early, a transfer from Army who grew up in the Richmond area, will start Tuesday against Longwood. He pitched 1.2 innings out of the bullpen in the opener Friday.
“We expect really good things out of him,” O’Connor said, “and [the plan Tuesday is to] just kind of chop the game up and use a lot of these bullpen guys as much as we can so we can start to, over the next couple of weeks, understand what people’s roles are and how they can best help us win a game as it rolls into conference season.”
The Cavaliers lost only two midweek games in 2022, and O’Connor has reminded his players that when the NCAA selection committee is evaluating teams, every game counts. “I know our guys are looking forward to [playing Longwood], and they’re looking forward to bringing it each and every day. They know that those games stack up and all of them matter.”
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